For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Public Health Rationale for Divesting from Police 


Written by Michael Rocchi and Kasia Kujawski 


On June 5, 2020, the Philadelphia Board of Health declared racism a public health crisis, which places it alongside other major public health crises including gun violence, mental health, opioid addiction, and lack of safe, affordable housing.1,2 Systemic racism is at the core of these collective traumas. While the Board of Health recognized this, the original proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 brought forward by Mayor Jim Kenney blatantly ignored evidence solidifying the relationship between racism and health. Additionally, the compromise between the mayor and Philadelphia City Council’s budgets does not go far enough to promote public health.

The city’s original proposed budget for 2022 was set at $727 million. After added revenue this amount was raised to $758 million.3 While Mayor Kenney, in accordance with City Council, claimed the Philadelphia Police Department budget would be frozen, the budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year (2022) includes hidden funds for the police department as line items under different departments, including money allocated for police “reforms” and equipment such as tasers.4

Increased policing and police funding will not solve the pervasive public health crises Philadelphia is facing. Over-policing and inflated police funding continue to raise international public health concerns and reflect a fundamental problem with how governments respond to, care for, and support their residents, especially in Philadelphia.

In response, this brief proposes the city divert funding from the police department toward the following city services in order to more effectively address the major public health issues impacting Philadelphia:

  • Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services
  • Department of Parks and Recreation
  • Department of Public Health
  • Office of Violence Prevention

Evidence shows that increased investment in programs that support mental health and economic security effectively reduce violence and improve health and wellbeing.5

Key Terms and Definitions

  • Divest – to dispossess or deprive an entity or department of funding and resources
  • Defund – to reduce budgetary funds and redistribute them to other departments or resources
  • Divert – to reallocate funding from one department to another
  • Community-based solutions – the active engagement of individuals affected by an emergency in the development of strategies related to their assistance and protection
  • Healing-centered approach – an approach to identify strength in the face of trauma and create accountability through healing to enhance well-being

Impact of Over-policing

The American Public Health Association (APHA) has identified police violence in the U.S. to be a grave public health concern rooted in anti-Black racism.6 The consistent increases in police budgets affect many facets of the entire city budget in ways that greatly impact public health.

An analysis conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that in 2019 Black people were 70% more likely to be stopped by the police and 80% more likely to be frisked during a pedestrian stop than White people.7 A February 2021 Philadelphia Police Department memo reinforced this stop and frisk practice by calling for increased code violation notices (CVNs) and traffic stops in South Philadelphia. This practice disproportionally impacts people of color at a rate of about 75% and only yield a weapon about 0.2% of the time.8

The over-policing of Black communities led to the murder of Walter Wallace Jr. during a mental health crisis when his family called for a paramedic. The police officers who responded lacked training in mental health de-escalation. Instead of helping Wallace, the police shot and killed him. Following the incident, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw stated the Philadelphia Police does not have a behavioral or mental health department and should not be responding to these types of calls that can lead to danger or violence.9

Cycle of Police Funding

Diverting funds away from communities to the police is a practice deeply rooted in racism and discrimination against Black and Brown people. Lack of community resources due to these budget choices exacerbates poverty and segregation and leads to increased violence, which in turn lays the groundwork to justify an increase in policing.10 The of increased policing cycle leads to a lack of living wage jobs and reinforces food and housing insecurity, which further escalates mental and physical health problems. As these challenges accumulate, gun violence surges thus reinforcing calls to divest funding from communities and wrongly invest more money into policing.

The budget originally considered by City Council set out to continue this cycle with increased funding to the Philadelphia Police Department.

The financial burden of over-policing is placed on the shoulders of taxpayers. During the peaceful protest for racial justice from May 30 to June 21, 2020, the Philadelphia police accrued approximately $17.7 million in overtime, an increase from the departments’ typical $5.8 million per month.11 During these protests, Mayor Kenney authorized the illegal use of tear gas on protesters, which the United Nations (U.N.) condemns as a human rights abuse. The U.N. cites Philadelphia as the primary example of the need for demilitarization of police departments and an end of over-policing of communities.

Reduced policing of Black and Brown communities will result in less violence and death caused by police and may help dismantle racism in police departments.12,13 In the first half of 2021, there have been 264 homicides, with 85% affecting Black communities.14

Some argue that investing in police is important, especially as Philadelphia is witnessing a massive increase in gun violence that is disproportionately affecting Black and Brown citizens. However, research concludes the opposite. Rather than investing in police, it is more effective to invest in community resources that address mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and social isolation. Additionally, investing in efforts to reduce poverty, such as increasing access to food, housing, and utility assistance, promotes mental and physical health and reduces community violence.15,16

In 2021, the Philadelphia Police Department received $727 million with an additional $220 million directed to prisons. It is clear Philadelphia is divesting from communities and social services by allocating more than half of its taxpayer-funded budget for maniple social services to policing and incarceration. With a focus on “law and order,” these divestments are primarily taken from resources that can and should be used for community and public welfare programs.18

Supporting Evidence: Policy Change in Practice

Philadelphia can learn from other cities in its effort to address the public health crises that also impact communities across the country. Defunding the police and redirecting funds to community services is a starting point. To date, many cities have taken bold steps to invest in public health and reduce over-policing and police violence, including:

  • Austin, TX
  • Baltimore, MD
  • Berkeley, CA
  • Boston, MA
  • Dallas, TX
  • Denver, CO
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Milwaukee, WI
  • Minneapolis, MN
  • New York, NY
  • Oakland, CA
  • Portland, OR
  • Salt Lake City, UT
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Seattle, WA

Seattle has been one of the most proactive U.S. cities to reduce over-policing by divesting from their police department.19 In fiscal year 2021, the city reduced the Seattle Police Department's operating budget by almost 20%, a total divestment of $76 million from a budget of $409 million.20 Ten million dollars of these funds are being diverted to Seattle's Department of Human Services to develop non-police approaches for responding to harm and crisis.21

Other cities have divested significant amounts of their police department budgets. New York City reduced the police department's budget by $400 million, decreases the number of new cadets and recruit classes, and created a social worker-led pilot program to respond to mental health crises.22 Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, Minneapolis cut their budget by $8 million, rerouting property damage and incident reports to 3-1-1 instead of 9-1-1. They are investing $2 million into community-based violence prevention and a mobile mental health team.23

Finally, there are additional creative approaches to responding to behavioral health crises that do not directly involve police. One successful model is the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) model in Eugene, Oregon. CAHOOTS is a mobile crisis intervention service integrated into the City of Eugene’s Police Department. It is staffed with medics and crisis workers, trained in de-escalation techniques, EMT certifications, and other human services. Since its implementation in 1989, its unique approach has vastly reduced need for police intervention. For example, of 24,000 crisis calls that CAHOOTS responded to in 2019, only 311 required police backup. CAHOOTS teams have resolved nearly 20% of calls to the city’s public safety communications center.24, 25, 26

Recommendations to Defund the Philadelphia Police and Proposed Budget Solutions

With the proposed increase to the Philadelphia police budget, the city continues to divest from community spaces and much needed infrastructure improvements provided by Parks and Recreation, and Libraries among others. While new funds have been set aside for violence prevention, entrepreneurship and job training for young people, and neighborhood preservation, the budget agreement with City Council and the mayor does not go far enough in redirecting funds slated for policing.
  1. Improve city budget transparency

    The city’s budget should be more transparent to allow Philadelphians easy access to the city’s information services and easily understand where tax payer funds are allocated.

  2. Divert funds originally slated for policing into public and behavioral health, education, and housing supports

    The fiscal year 2022 proposed budget claims not to increase the Philadelphia Police Department’s budget. In actuality, it includes an increase of $31.7 million, including $16.9 million in grant revenue, which would bring the full police budget to $758,809,632. Of this increase, $7.9 million in grant revenue and another $14.8 million allocated from other revenue are allocated for materials, supplies, and equipment.27 These funds will go to tasers and other equipment at the discretion of the Philadelphia police.28 Tasers and other equipment will not address the public health emergencies Philadelphia is facing.

    Amidst a pandemic, there should be an investment in the Department of Public Health, with a focus on mental and behavioral health. The police are not trained or equipped to assist in mental health crises and should not receive funding for mental health crisis response. The City’s budget sets aside funding for “police reforms.”29 But police reforms are ineffective in changing implicit biases or de-escalating mental health crises.30,31
  3. Continue to expand violence prevention efforts

    The new city budget has some mild improvements in violence prevention, and will direct $20 million to community based organization that are actively working to prevent violence. Apparently, these additional investments will become permanent. But more needs to be done.

  4. Invest in trauma-informed/healing-centered behavioral health care

    Individuals experiencing mental health crisis are entitled to a safe and humane response. Over one-third of incarcerated adults and nearly 75% of youth in the juvenile justice system have diagnosable mental health conditions. The criminalization of mental health disproportionately effects people of color, immigrants, and LGBT+ communities.32 Rather than criminalizing trauma, poverty, and mental health challenges, Philadelphia must invest in evidence-based treatment services that promote recovery and resilience. Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is particularly important to prioritize mental health funding as the country begins to heal from the collective trauma and isolation of the pandemic. Everyone in Philadelphia should have equal access to the mental health services and supports that they need, yet only 45% of those with a diagnosable mental health condition will receive treatment in any given year.33
  5. Invest in creating trauma-informed community 9-1-1 alternative

    It is long overdue for the City to create community-based and trauma-informed alternatives to calling 9-1-1. Proposing to include behavioral health co-response units in the police budget simply strengthens policing. The goal must be to alleviate the burden of behavioral health response from the police and reduce police involvement in crisis calls. The City’s budget does not currently invest in federal mandates to implement 9-8-8 calls to provide effective responses to mental health crises. Under the current budget, DBHIDS is not equipped to handle 9-8-8 implementation and Philadelphia has only 1.5 Mobile Crisis Teams to respond to the behavioral health crises in a city of 1.6 million people. Using funds earmarked for policing to develop more thorough mobile response to mental health crises in the community would reduce the burden on police and reduce instances of police violence in those facing mental health emergencies.
  6. Invest in education

    Philadelphia should follow the example of cities such as Minneapolis, Portland, and Seattle, whose school boards have canceled contracts with local police departments and removed police officers from schools. Starting salaries for entry-level teachers, counselors, and social workers, which typically require a master’s degree and are much lower than the starting salary of a police officer, who can enter the academy right out of high school. An investment needs to be made in education, particularly in early childhood education, and mental health services in schools, with better compensation for teachers, counselors, and social workers.

    Additional investments in education would include diverting funds from police into after-school programs, community recreation centers, libraries, grassroots community groups, community gardens, and youth groups. Involvement in after-school and community programs is shown to reduce violence in communities.37
  7. Increase funding to promote safe and affordable housing

    It is essential for Philadelphia to create more access to affordable housing and decriminalize homelessness and poverty.38 The city should also invest in ongoing rental assistance to prevent evictions and the displacement of Philadelphians in the future.39

  8. Promote human flourishing

    Initiating a greater investment in Philadelphia’s communities will not only improve public health and the mental and physical wellbeing of Philadelphians but will actively reduce violence, including gun violence. These reductions will also reduce the need for policing.

    The primary driver of health and wellbeing is within our reach. Each time the city proposes a budget, it provides an opportunity to rethink and redirect the way we invest in the heath of Philadelphia and its residents. In order for every Philadelphian to flourish, we must reduce the power and control of police, invest in local community organizations and healing-centered approaches, and ensure all people are able to pay for the basic necessities of food, housing, and utilities.

The Center for Hunger-Free Communities would like to thank Kate Fox, MPH, doctoral student at Dornsife School of Public Health for her editorial and content support.